Not the right guy for Iraq

The terror in Iraq is a Sunni rebellion against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, writes Birgit Svensson in Baghdad, who lays the blame for the country's dire straits squarely at the door of its Shia head of government

By Birgit Svensson

"He is the right guy for Iraq," gushed George W. Bush, when Nouri al-Maliki first became prime minister in Baghdad in April 2006. It was one of numerous errors of judgement made by the then US President. The Iraqi media, on the other hand, used the phrases "spare tyre" or "spare wheel" to describe the chairman of the Shia Dawa party, who suddenly and unexpectedly assumed the country's highest-ranking political post in the post-Saddam era.

And indeed, Maliki was no more than a compromise candidate after the two potential aspirants expended themselves in a bitter power struggle. Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who was favoured by Tehran, had been head of the Dawa party before Maliki and then became prime minister of the interim government. For its part, Washington had backed Adel Abdul Mahdi, who was already vice-president. In the end, Maliki won through.

He wanted to reconcile the Iraqis, he said obligingly during his inaugural address. The bloody civil war between Shia and Sunnis had just begun, and as interim prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari was reproached for not having recognised the extent of the conflict in good time. So hopes for an end to the killing were pinned on Maliki.

But his uncompromising stance on Sunnis was already in evidence at the time. "If they don't want to participate," he said in an interview when he was still chairman of the Dawa party, "then they can go to hell." The majority of Sunnis had opted to boycott the elections, because they were hostile to the regime change and viewed it as an act of the occupying forces, or in other words the Americans. As a consequence, the constitution was essentially hammered out and adopted without Sunni involvement. Moreover, there was minimal Sunni participation in the parliamentary elections. But the Americans pressed for a unity government representing all of Iraq's ethnic groups – much to the chagrin of Maliki, as it would later turn out.

Nouri al-Maliki (left) and US Secretary of State John Kerry (photo: Getty Images)
The Americans introduced proportional representation in the allocation of government posts for the post-Saddam era, but during his time in office, Nouri al-Maliki found ways of getting around this, chasing Sunnis from the cabinet with accusations of terror links and holding onto portfolios himself that could have gone to Sunnis. The Americans now realise that recent events in Iraq are part of a Sunni uprising against Maliki and have said they have no plans to send combat troops to Iraq

Profound aversion to Sunni Islam

The Dawa party stood in opposition to the Sunni Saddam Hussein. Because Maliki had been a member of the party since 1968, he was sentenced to death in 1980, whereupon he and other members of the party fled to Iran. Several close members of his family were murdered in Iraq. During his first term as prime minister, the 64-year-old scholar of literature was still partly able to conceal his profound aversion to anything related to Sunni Islam, but it was wholly unleashed during his second term.

The Americans had introduced proportional representation in the allocation of government responsibility. But in 2010, right under the nose of the Americans, who were about to withdraw from Iraq, Maliki set about establishing a Shia state. An increasing number of public positions were filled by Shia Muslims; Sunnis had no chance. Today, this process of Shia monopolisation is complete on all levels apart from the very lowest ranking positions. The managers of state-run hotels are Shias, as are school head teachers and theatre directors. Maliki also kept important cabinet portfolios, such as the defence and interior ministries, for himself, as he claimed not to have found any "suitable" Sunnis for the jobs.

But it didn't stop there. Once US troops had been pulled out, he started picking a fight with Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, the highest-ranking Sunni in Iraq at the time, accusing him of being a terrorist stooge. In a story that grabbed headlines around the world, two of his bodyguards told state television they had planned a coup against the prime minister. A warrant was issued for Hashemi's arrest and he was sentenced to death in absentia. He now lives in exile in Turkey.

The next person on the list of those to be ostracised was Maliki's own deputy: Saleh al-Mutlaq accused his boss of adopting dictatorial traits and compared him with Saddam Hussein, who also used brutal methods to get rid of adversaries. By way of punishment, Mutlaq was suspended from duty and transferred to the Green Zone under what was tantamount to house arrest. Maliki had all of Mutlaq's permits and licences confiscated, which meant that had he left the security zone, the Sunni Muslim would have been without protection and therefore highly vulnerable.

Iraqi Shia tribesmen driving around Baghdad (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Shia tribesmen parade with their weapons in central Baghdad's Palestine Street, showing their willingness to join Iraqi security forces in the fight against ISIS. Faced with a militant offensive sweeping south toward Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the Iraqi government would arm and equip civilians who volunteer to fight. Thousands have signed up

Open Sunni–Shia conflict

The case of Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi is another illustration of Maliki's conduct towards Sunni cabinet colleagues. Issawi was accused of involvement in al-Qaida terror activities. Two of his bodyguards were arrested and, as in the case of Hashemi, forced to make a confession on camera – under threat of torture, as it later turned out. Issawi resigned from his post as finance minister and has since been in hiding out in his home province of Anbar, which is now largely under ISIS control.

The Sunni organisation ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which is also known as ISIL) has overrun huge swathes of territory in just a few days. In addition to the province of Anbar, which lies northwest of Baghdad, it has been able to occupy the province of Nineveh in the north including Mosul, a city with a population of over a million, the province of Salahuddin with its main city Tikrit and parts of Baquba, capital of Diyala province.

All these provinces are either majority Sunni or have a large proportion of Sunni residents. Therefore, what is currently happening in Iraq is not just the work of a terror organisation; it is the uprising of Sunnis against the Shia head of government. Under the cover of ISIS, this is the reaction to the humiliation, exclusion and discrimination of recent years.

The Americans have also realised this. In response to Maliki's request for air strikes against ISIS, US President Barack Obama says Washington has no plans to send combat troops to Iraq. The problem must be tackled by political means, he said; only a government that includes all Iraqi ethnic groups can hope to find a solution. In other words: Maliki is not "the right guy for Iraq" after all. 

Birgit Svensson

© Qantara 2014

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/